Since his inauguration in January, President Donald Trump has faced a series of accusations regarding the alleged ties of himself and his team to the Russian government. Claims ranging from indiscretion in foreign contacts to the full-fledged participation of Trump team members in a Russian plot to subvert American democracy have been been put forward. Indeed, Texas Democratic Congressman Al Green is now known to be drafting articles of impeachment for the embattled president.
These developments, troubling though they are, can evoke one and only one question in those who are interested in truth as opposed to accusations: Is there proof? Can the claims made against Trump and his core team members be backed up by hard, demonstrable evidence? If not, these allegations have little more validity from either a legal or logical standpoint than any other claim that is presented without sufficient evidence to establish it as true. To use the axiom coined by Christopher Hitchens that has come to be known as Hitchen’s Razor, that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
What We Know About the Allegations
To establish whether or not any of these accusations are justified, we must first take stock of what we know, assigning no interpretations and performing no extrapolations. We know that one or more external hacking groups took part in a carefully-crafted phishing attack against the DNC and the Clinton campaign during the buildup to the election. We know that two of the groups most likely to have been responsible for this have been asserted to have been instruments of the Russian government, though the existence and precise nature of such a connection has never been empirically demonstrated.
We also know that, throughout the course of the campaign and during the time period that spanned election day and inauguration day, members of the Trump team, including Michael Flynn and Jefferson Sessions, were in contact with representatives of the Russian government, most notably Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. We do not know the content of the conversations that we had between Mr. Kislyak and his American counterparts. We also know that these contacts between President Trump’s representatives and representatives of foreign governments was not exclusive to Russia. As we now know, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was actively engaged in building ties with Saudi Arabia during the transitional period.
Finally, we know that at least one member of the Trump staff, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, likely did break the law with regards to receiving payments from the Russian government. Mr. Flynn, a former general, received roughly $33,000 from Russia Today, a state-owned Russian news agency, for a speaking event in Moscow. Flynn failed to seek permission for this payment, and in so doing very likely violated the emoluments clause of the United States Constitution. Flynn also failed to disclose this payment in his request documents for a security clearance.
Where Do These Facts Lead Us?
Having briefly gone over what we know, we may begin to explore the conclusions that these facts may lead us to. Certainly, the facts currently at hand do not discount the accusations, at least the more mainstream ones, that have been presented against Trump and his advisors. It is heavily worth noting, however, that these facts also do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that these accusations are factual.
Take, for example, the possibility that these facts represent simply the results of the actions of a woefully inexperienced White House. Like the accusations of Russian collusion, this conclusion is neither necessarily refuted by nor necessarily follows from the evidence at hand. Consider also, for a moment, the possibility that there is not some single, overarching explanation for all of these things. Any number of hybrid explanations involving some real degree of wrongdoing and some real degree of innocent blunders are possible without crossing the line of what the facts at hand would necessarily refute.
In short, the honest answer from both a legal and logical perspective is “We don’t know.” There is nothing wrong is admitting this altogether true fact. Certainly, those accusing the Trump White House of collusion in some sort of grand electoral scheme could be right, in the sense that what we know doesn’t necessarily prove that they are wrong. However, just because they could be right doesn’t mean that they are.
The Dangers of Accusations Prior to Evidence
The great problem of making a claim and then looking for evidence that supports it is that the claimant is likely to miss other possibilities and other evidence. Take, for example, the case of an alleged document leak that occurred just days before the French election. Documents purporting to show hidden offshore assets belonging to Mr. Macron were posted online, though their validity, like some of the alleged DNC documents from 2016, was dubious at best. Many were quick to jump to the conclusion that Russian hackers had once again attempted to sway a Western election. As more evidence was gathered, however, it became increasingly clear that another explanation had more weight to it. The documents were almost certainly posted, if not created by, a know white supremacist living in the United States named Andrew Auernheimer. Mr. Auernheimer is also a known hacker who goes by the alias Weev online. Had the initial allegation of Russian interference been taken universally as fact before sufficient evidence had been presented to support that conclusion, as many were wont to do, the facts in the matter would likely have been overlooked altogether.
Another recent case of incorrect accusations preceding evidence comes to mind in the infamous string of threats against synagogues and Jewish community centers in the United States and around the world. These incidents, which should rightly be condemned, regardless of their source, usually included a specific threat that a bomb would be used. Initially, it was assumed that anti-Semitic or Neo-Nazi groups were to blame. Some even put part of the blame on Donald Trump and other members of the alt-right movement, believing that there were inspiring religious hatred. Even in a case that, on its surface, would seem to be cut-and-dry, a reminder that evidence must always precede conclusions emerged. In March, Israeli police arrested the individual responsible for these heinous threats. Was this person a right-wing extremist inspired by the new president and his ilk around the world? No. Instead, the culprit was an Israeli teenage hacker who may have been doing little more than pulling an extremely sadistic prank.
What we should take away from these examples is that the “obvious” explanation, regardless of how well, loudly or frequently presented, is not always the correct one. President Trump is, by any measure, an inexperienced and sometimes poor president, bereft of an understanding of the complexities of our system of government and lacking in the economic and foreign policy knowledge that is so crucial to the success of modern leaders. However, none of that matters here. As the United States Constitution contains nothing similar to a parliamentary no-confidence vote, simply being a poor president is insufficient for removal from office.
Trump, like every other American, has the right to due process. His accusers should remember this, and divest themselves of the conclusions they have made without the facts to support them. Let us, the American electorate and those who represent it, hold ourselves to the high standards that due process, logic and evidence requires of us in these matters. By all means, let us follow where the evidence leads, but let us not try to lead the evidence to conclusions it does not support. These are the demands of our system, and of the logical principles of the Enlightenment on which it was founded. If the president’s opponents continue to ignore these fundamental principles, then it will not be primarily Mr. Trump, but they, who will be guilty of irreparably damaging our uniqu
e system of government and justice.
The Case for Russian Hacking: Did the Kremlin Hack the DNC and John Podesta?
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